Thursday, July 14, 2011

Reaching Out: Online Marketing for the Middle Grade Audience

This is a tough crowd.

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

It used to be writers could just write, and “other people” took care of the marketing and promotion, but that’s changed. Today, writers need to know at least a little about self-promotion and marketing to be successful (and I feel the more they know the better off they’ll be). Online opportunities make it easier for us, but what happens when your market isn’t a heavy online user?

Middle grade fiction is one of those markets where a heavy online presence probably isn’t going to do you a whole lot of good. The bulk of your readers aren’t eagerly clicking on blogs to see the next great book or tweeting about what they’ve read recently. They’re out being kids and having fun. They hear about their books from friends, parents, teachers, and librarians.

Those are the folks you want to reach online.

Media center specialist and local librarians recommend books to their readers every day, and the middle grade crowd often seeks them out to know what’s worth reading. I asked my local media specialists a few questions about how and where they found their books, and here’s what they said.

Where do you hear about/find new books for your school's library?
Most had multiple resources they checked, the most common ones being the tradition book review sites like School Library Journal, Booklist and The Horn Book review journal. Others included suggestions by retail bookstore employees and book vendors, book fairs, literature conferences and media specialists meetings. Many belonged to e-mail lists and received catalogs from book vendors. One surprise: students also tell them what’s hot and what they need to get.

What This Means for Writers
The bulk of the marketing here is coming from places the typical writer doesn’t have access to, though their publisher likely does. (For example, I know my publisher sends my books to School Library Journal, Booklist and the Horn Book for reviews) But since media specialists also hear about books from booksellers, getting to know your local booksellers is a possible option. (And if they’re anything like my local booksellers, they’re awesome folks)

How often do you find books online?
This is what we want to know, right? All the media specialists I spoke to said they did indeed find books online, ranging from “occasionally” to “often.” But again, many of these online resources were things the typical writer doesn’t have control over. As in, they can’t do anything to actively promote on that online venue.

Now the question we’ve all been waiting for…

What are some sites/resources that you use to find new books?
There are a bunch of sites and many of them don’t take submissions from authors so I’m not listing them. (Feel free to email me if you’re just curious and I’ll send you the list). I’m going to list the ones that do or might, and chat a bit about them where applicable.

Barnes & Noble and Amazon (Online)
It’s an easy one-stop shopping kind of site where you can find multiple reviews for books you’re interested in.
What can writers do here: Try and get as many reviews as you can from a wide variety of sources. For example, I’m about to contact the folks who gave nice reviews of my books and see if they’d be willing to post them on the bookseller sites. Good for me and good for them since they can advertise their own blog or review site. I don’t know how many will say yes, but I’ll let you know. You can also have an author’s page on Amazon, and create reading lists of favorite books.

School Library Journal
Plenty of reviews and the most commonly mentioned site in my small survey. They have multiple bloggers doing reviews as well, some with links to the kidlit bloggers those reviews like. So there are lots of resources.
What can writers do here: SLJ doesn’t accept submissions for review directly from authors, but the links to other reviewer blogs is a great resource. Many of them you can contact.

Books N Bytes
Specializing in mystery, science fiction and fantasy, this site is filled with author interviews, guest columns, reviews, signing reports and more. Looks like a lot of stuff.
What writers can do here: They do have an “update” page where you can send in a book to be listed or considered for reviewed. I noticed that my books aren’t on here and I’ll be sending something in myself to fix that.

Read Kiddo Read
Run by James Patterson, this site is dedicated to making kids readers for life. They offer reviews by age group, as well as lesson plans for teachers and media specialists. (More stuff as well, so poke around. It’s a cool site)
What writers can do here: I saw no info for submitting, so I’m not sure if writers can contact them or not. Worth a try though. (If anyone has more info here, let me know)

Teen Reads
A pretty big site of reviews, interviews, and all kinds of fun bookish stuff.
What writers can do here: They have submission info for sending in books for review. They do interviews and have guest posts as well, and I imagine you can also ask about those. Definitely a sight worth checking out.

Teen Reads Too
A very similar site to Teen Reads, and this one seems to have more for the middle grader.
What writers can do here: They have submission info for being added to the author directory, reviews or interviews, so they’re open to authors.

YALSA’s Teen List
The Young Adult Library Services Association is part of the ALA (American Library Association). They put out a “Best Books for Teens” list every year and give six literary awards per year (the Printz is one of them). They also do other teen related reading events.
What writers can do here: YALSA is a group you can join and get involved with the various events and things they do. I happened to run into one of the group leaders in my region at a book signing once, and did several events with them. They seem open to authors and worth contacting (or joining) and getting involved.

What Publishers Do
I also checked with my publisher and marketing folks (HarperCollins and the Nelson Literary Agency) to see what they do to help market their MG books. Here’s what they said:
“From the publicity standpoint, we try to place book reviews or features in magazines such as Girls Life, Boys Life, and Discovery Girls that tweens read. I also work with the gatekeepers, including librarian book blogs (Fuse 8 is a great one) or parenting magazines, such as Family Circle, or Parenting School Years.” -- Allison, Assistant Director of Publicity, Integrated Marketing
“So, the elusive middle grade reader, huh? Readers of middle grade are still at the age where the books they read are most often coming from teachers, librarians, and parents, so in a traditional sense, the majority of our marketing continues to reach out to those gatekeepers—both online and off. But we’ve also started to reach out to tweens via the online communities and interactive websites they inhabit, providing such sites with content for middle grade books (i.e. excerpts, videos, games, etc.) that allow children to engage with a given book before they make the jump to having a parent buy it for them or checking it out from the library.” -- Emilie, Integrated Marketing Manager
“I would offer that one of the most fruitful efforts an author can make is to connect with his/her readers online whenever possible. These days, middle-graders and tweens are starting to visit specialty blogs and review sites and express their opinions via comment sections and reader forums; nothing is more exciting than to hear from their favorite author in response. And connecting with readers in this way allows an author to build not only good will but a loyal community, one that doesn't think twice about recommending their favorite books to friends!” –Lindsey, NLA Marketing Liaison

Still Lost?
Yeah, sometimes I am too. One thing that everyone (publishing-wise) has told me is that middle grade is a slow burn. It takes time to develop a readership because of the middle tier of adults who often pass down the books to the actual reader. While YA is more like adult, and a book sometimes needs to land with a big splash or get left behind, middle grade is given more time to grow.

ETA: Natalie Aguirre over at Literary Rambles started doing a monthly "Ask the Experts" column where she interviews a middle grade reader about what they read and where the find their books. Very enlightening stuff. July's post goes up Monday. The first two are here and here. (On an unrelated note, they also have an awesome round up of agent info and other good stuff over there)

Those in the know are still trying to figure out how to market to this group, so don’t feel bad if you’re not sure how to do it either. For me, I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing and reaching out to readers of all ages.

Your thoughts? How do you feel about online marketing? Do you have any tips or tricks that work well for you?

Other articles on marketing:


  1. Excellent post Janice. A lot of us agree with you that marketing middle grade books is harder than YA. Not only because the kids don't go online to our websites as much but because the book review blogs focus more on YA books.

    I am starting an ASK THE EXPERT series once a month where I interview kids about how they find out about books and so far even the older kids-8th grade is the oldest I've interviewed--do not visit author blogs or websites that much if at all. They're too busy.

    One thing we can do is to comment on any of the sites you mentioned that have blogs and those bloggers who do feature middle grade books. There are a number of people I follow for this reason.

  2. Irish writer Derek Landy's Skulduggery Pleasant series is middle grade and he has a HUGE following (like 5000 comments sometimes), He calls his followers Faithful Minions. His blog style kind of mirrors his series. He has high visibility because he's won lots of awards but he would be an interesting one to study and/or interview on how he does it.

  3. Thanks for the shout out Janice. FYI I will be intervieweing kids in high schoo too.

  4. *booksmarks post*

    My debut novel is targetted to readers in grade 8/9. I haven't even begun to figure out how to market to this age group.

    Okay, I've begun, but I've got a LONG way to go. Thank you for the links and reminders/ideas. I met with a local author who writes for the same age group (a little young, maybe) and he brought up the same points, targetting teachers/librarians before trying to get into the classroom.

    Here's hoping I don't fall on my face before I've begun! Thanks again.

  5. WOW! The information here in invaluable to the MG writer. You have compiled excellent resources and stated some tremendous things to consider. Thank you.

  6. The book that's getting ready to go on submission falls in that dreaded MG/YA gap. I'd prefer to end up on the early-YA side of it, but wherever it sells is good, you know? I just think my online voice is more suited to selling books to teens than it is to selling to parents of tweens.

    Anyway, regardless of how it gets marketed when/if it sells, I'll definitely be looking for this post again when the time comes. Thanks!

  7. Natalie: That's awesome about the high school interviews. I love that series. Any chance you'll do it more than once a month?

    Anon: Wow, what a following he has! Thanks for the link. He's worth looking at, even if he's not your average writer :)

    Kimberly: Most welcome! I'm sure you won;t fall on your face. One good thing about the MG market, is that since it's hard to market to, it's harder to fail at it.

    Barbara: You're welcome :) I hope it helps a lot of folks!

    Joe: You might be surprised where they out it once it sells. Mine was YA when I wrote it, then it got nudged down to upper MG after it sold. There are advantages to MG.

  8. Janice, I probably won't do it more than once a month because I only blog on Mondays. That's enough for me with working full time.

  9. This is so great. It's a funny thing about writing for middle grade readers, because you essentially have to write two books - the book that the kid reads and the book that the kid's adult gatekeeper reads. Which is why these books are so very tricky to write.

    The marketing aspect is another problem entirely. We have to hook the gatekeeper's by allowing them to imagine their little charges being hooked. It's like walking a tightrope while juggling while simultaneously explaining how the tightrope is fastened and teaching how to juggle.

  10. @kellybarnhill -- That's a cool breakdown. I hear some people talk down about MG, but that makes me think they haven't read a lot of it. MG has a lot of tight, interesting books in it, like Janice's, that manage to be good reads for kids and engaging for adults at the same time. It's a difficult job that, when done well, reads very easily. I hadn't thought of it in those terms though for books (In kid's movies/TV, there are some jokes that are obviously for the parents, like the Sesame Street parodies or some of the word-play in Cars -- both of which I realize is a lot younger than MG...maybe why it's more obvious).

  11. Great post! I will definitely be sharing this! :)

  12. Amazing post! Thank you. And thanks to Susan for sharing the link on Google+

  13. Terrific post. I've been trying to figure this out since my first MG book comes out this month. Thanks for the ideas.

  14. Thanks for the great post Janice! I will be linking to it in my weekly roundup of great links for children's writers.
    One of the things I have been wondering lately is the whether the mid grade audience are engaged with ebooks or is that still to come...Here in NZ eReaders are just coming in..and I haven't seen any in the hands of kids except ipads with picture book apps. Is there a take up of this technology in the US amongst mid graders...or is it still gatekeeper focused?(not that that is a bad thing lol)

  15. @Maureen My experience in the US has been a LOT of MG kids have access to e-readers (either their own or their parents'). My 12yo son wrote and self-pubbed a book to share with his friends, and some of them had their own iPads (admittedly, those kids are spoiled!). In the teen writing class I just taught, two out of eight teens had THEIR OWN e-reader (one brought hers to class) and NONE of their parents did. #wow

  16. Thanks Susan,
    We have an interesting discussion going on at the moment on FB about a NZ state high school flagging that as part of next years stationery requirement iPad2 will be on the nearly $1000 NZ that is way way beyond the average stationery requirement $30NZ for one book last year was the most I paid for my 18 yr old...the writers amongst us were wondering how far behind the US we were in e reader take up amongst your reply is very welcome and interesting fodder to add to the discussion.

  17. Natalie: Aw. But I understand :) Can't wait for next month's.

    Kelly: That's very true. That's the reason they changed my original title from The Pain Merchants to The Shifter. They didn't think parents would like the "pain" in the title for their kids.

    MK: Thanks!

    Susan: Thanks, and I appreciate that :)

    Kristen: Most welcome!

    Rebecca: Happy to help. I hope your release goes well!

    Maureen: Thanks so much! I haven't seen a lot of kids with e-readers yet, but the schools around here talk about getting some in for the libraries.

    Susan: Thanks for the update on e-readers. That's so cool about your son's book. I'll have to start asking when I do my school visits.

  18. @Maureen I kind of love that it's called "stationery requirement." #languagegeek

  19. p.s. I just got news that my local school district won an award from the State to buy iPads for every child (Grades 3-6) in two schools. Every time I think this is going to take time to catch hold, I'm wrong.

  20. Wow, that's awesome. I think when kids are mostly reading on e-readers, that's when the market will really change. A generation has to grow up with it before it'll becomes standard.

  21. Janice,
    Tremendous post. Thank you for your insights into the mid grade genre. Librarians and teachers are GODS (I thanked them in my book)and is there anything better than helping a teacher by working with them and their class? I think not. If you haven't done so already, check out the LearnZillion site. A great program that is growing by leaps and bounds!

  22. Al, thanks! Librarians and teachers are awesome. I've had so much fun working with them and their students. I'll check it out.